At the core of anxiety – whether it’s about relationships, jobs, moving, parenthood, or life itself – lives a series of common false beliefs held together by the common thread of: I’m not enough. Underneath this painful umbrella false belief are the sinister-sister beliefs of I’m not worthy; I have to prove my worth by excelling and achieving; I will only be loved if I’m perfect; I don’t deserve a happy life. With these running commentaries on a loop in the subtext of psyche, it’s no wonder that so many people are living in a state of perpetual anxiety.
If you don’t understand the connection between silently telling yourself these lies and feeling anxious, imagine if you had a young child and all day long you were telling him, “You’re not enough. I’ll only love you if you do well in school and fit into the societally acceptable box of normal. I’ll only love you when others approve of you. I’ll only love you if you’re attractive enough and wear the right clothes. I’ll only love you if you’re quiet and clean. I’ll only love if you’re perfect.”
We’re born lovable, good, and, dare I say, perfect. When a baby is born, the parents don’t look at their miracle and say, “We’ll only love her if she’s beautiful and gets straight As and is popular in school and gets into an Ivy League college and marries the right person and lives in a beautiful house.” Those covert or overt message don’t arrive until the child is older. No, at birth the parents typically fall in love with their baby because the baby exists. The baby doesn’t have to be anything other than who she is. She’s lovable because she’s here. Sometimes pregnant mothers fear that they won’t love their baby unless she’s beautiful, but the magic of motherhood is that every baby is the most beautiful baby on the planet in her mother’s eyes. The overpowering love affects perception and all the mother sees is beauty and angelic perfection.
And then, after the baby becomes a toddler, the ecstasy of the in-love bubble deflates (as it does in every relationship) and the relationship becomes real. The baby who could do no wrong now has a voice and a will, and he will push his parents’ buttons. They still love him but they don’t always like him. And, if they haven’t dealt with their own issues around worthiness and performance, they will pass on their inherited beliefs that their job as parents is to mold and shape behavior so that their child becomes a high achieving, successful member of society. Parents are encouraged to do this by following the advice of a “good job” culture that praises behavior instead of essence, outcome over effort, gold stars and As over passion. When Mommy’s face lights up when Billy draws a “perfect” tree but doesn’t when he struggles with basketball, he will naturally direct his energy toward the place where he receives positive feedback. In other words, he may love basketball more than drawing, but Mommy seems so impressed by his tree that he pursues an area that isn’t his passion.
Where this becomes especially damaging is around the realm of big feelings. Mommy smiles when Billy “behaves well”, which means not making too much noise, not crying, not showing anger, being agreeable and helpful, going to bed on time. She trains him to be a good boy, and, in the process, runs the risk of annihilating his essential nature, which may be loud, boisterous, or sensitive. The message he receives is that he’s only loved when he’s a good boy (normal, fits into the mold, agreeable, not too loud or messy).
Does this sound familiar? Was your parents’ love conditional upon “good” behavior? Was your essence reflected back to you or did you only receive praise for your achievements?
As adults, the work is to recognize the running commentary and notice how often it runs in your psyche. Once you notice it, you create some space from it and have the power to change it. The work is about replacing the lie of “I’m not enough” with the truth that you are enough, you are loved, you are lovable exactly as you. It helps to begin a practice of connecting to your essence instead of your externals, of learning to see yourself as you really are in your unchangeable and eternal self.
To connect to your essence, I often suggest the following exercise:
Close your eyes and imagine the most loving person in the world sitting next to you. Perhaps this is a grandmother, living or deceased, who delights in the sight of you, whose smile reflects her unconditional love. Perhaps it’s an animal, a creature that knows you so well and loves you simply because you exist. Perhaps it’s a friend or your partner who gets you completely and has no trouble reflecting back why he or she loves you. This person can be real or imagined, but the energy that they resonate at is pure love and unconditional acceptance.
Now imagine that this person is looking into your eyes and can see directly into your soul. She or he wants to tell you what they see: what qualities describe you; the strands of your being; who you are in your essence. There may or may not be words attached to this description, but through this communication you receive a direct transmission of who you are and a clear awareness that you are loved because you exist. That you are worthy without having to prove anything. That you are good, enough, and good enough.
As a parent, it’s one of my deepest desires for my sons to know that they are lovable and loved exactly as they are, no matter how angry, loud, messy, or disrespectful they are. I want them to know that all of their feelings are welcome and important. I may not always like their behavior, and I let them know, but it doesn’t alter my love for them, which is unchanging and eternal. I’ll say to them, “I didn’t like how you treated your friend today, but nothing will ever change how much I love you.” Sometimes when my little one has had one of his signature, explosive meltdowns where he screams so loud that I’m sure my mother can hear him on the other side of the state, he collapses onto my lap in tears and I sing him a little song. It goes like this:
I love you when you’re happy and I love you when you’re sad. I love you when you’re grumpy and I love you when you’re mad. I love you when you’re little and I love you when you’re big. I love you when you’re silly and I love you when you’re mig.
And don’t ask me what “mig” means. He made up that part . But hopefully the message comes through: I love you because I love you. I don’t love you because you’re beautiful (even though you are). I don’t love you because you’re creative (although I do reflect back an awareness of your creativity). I love you because I love you. And that will never change no matter what you do.
Benjamin Franklin said, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” I would add one key element that is certain, enduring, and sustainable: love. When a parents communicates that her love is certain and unbreakable, the child grows up with a cushion of certainty to rest in when the changes, transitions, and losses that punctuate a human life come to bear. Instead of growing up with the false belief that quickly turns into a running commentary of “I’m not enough”, he knows, in the deepest place of knowing, that he’s enough. And from that place of knowing, he brings the gifts of his soul’s expression into the world.